Gove hints at single UK air quality standard after Brexit

Environment Secretary Michael Gove has told MPs that the UK is likely to have a single common standard for air quality after the country has exited the European Union.

Speaking during an evidence hearing of the Environmental Audit Committee in Westminster on Wednesday (1 November), Mr Gove was asked whether he foresaw any ‘regulatory divergence’ between central government and the devolved Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish administrations on environmental laws.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove, speaking at the Environment Audit Committee hearing on Wednesday

The minister was also questioned on the government’s proposals to tackle nitrogen dioxide emissions in towns and cities.

Speaking on future environmental standards and whether devolved governments could be given greater powers to set their own standards, he said: “I do not believe we should have regulatory divergence on things like air quality or water quality.”

Brexit

Mr Gove was also pressed on his previous assertion that the UK ‘can do much better outside of the EU’ in its efforts to tackle air pollution (see airqualitynews.com story).

Pushed by Green Party MP and Committee member Caroline Lucas over the UK’s failure to meet existing EU-mandated air quality standards, he said: “One of things I am anxious to do is to ensure people understand that outside the European Union there is an opportunity for us to embrace our environmental standards. I think that is what the majority of public would want to see.

“You quite rightly say we have failed when it comes to meeting some of our air quality requirements. Other member states have failed as well. I am not suggesting that excuses or exonerates our past failure. I am not saying the very act of leaving the European Union will mean instantly air quality improves, no.

“My two points are first, we are putting in place a series of measures that are more ambitious at the moment than some other EU nations in order to deal with it. Secondly, as Geraint [Davies MP] acknowledged, you have a country outside the EU, Norway, which does even better. It is not an absolute corollary that being outside things will be better but it creates potential for them to be better.”

Joan Ryan, MP for Enfield North, questioned Mr Gove over the government’s plan to tackle NO2

During the evidence hearing, the minister was also asked his view on comments that the government’s nitrogen dioxide plan, published in July, ‘passed the buck’ to local authorities

The UK Plan for tackling roadside NO2 concentrations identifies more than 20 local authority areas which are forecast to be in breach of the legal limits beyond 2021 and directs councils to produce proposals to bring emissions within the limits.

Critics of the plan suggest that too much of the onus is on local authorities, many of which have had their resources slashed, to bear the brunt of the responsibility.

Compliance

Mr Gove said: “The passing the buck challenge confuses the fact that it is local authorities themselves who have to take steps in order to ensure they are compliant with the law or that the law is complied with in the area for which they are responsible.

“We have made available sums of money in order to help local authorities meet those requirements. It is certainly the case that the sums that have been made available are significant and substantial. I hope they will ensure that local authorities do bring the level of NOx emissions at roadsides into compliance as quickly as possible.”